Palmer is a singer, formerly with a band called the Dresden Dolls, who enjoys a healthy cult following. Last week she wrote to the music-industry Web site the Lefsetz Letter to describe how she had grossed $19,000 in 10 hours on Twitter. She also posted the letter on her own wildly entertaining blog.
This will get back to journalism. I promise. Also: There's swearing.
Palmer is an enthusiastic tweeter who has used the service to gather crowds in the hundreds for spontaneous shows at parks and beaches. She writes that one Friday night in May she joked to her 30,000 followers, "i hereby call THE LOSERS OF FRIDAY NIGHT ON THEIR COMPUTERS to ORDER, motherfucker." The losers hung out online, joked with each other and became a top trending hashtag. Palmer designed a T-shirt with a Sharpie, had her Web designer create a site and sold, over the next few days, more than 400 shirts at $25 each for a gross of $11,000.
A few days later, Palmer writes, she and her assistant hosted a webcast auction during which Palmer sang songs and sold mementos and junk from her apartment, as well as individually chewed (!) and signed postcards. The haul: $6,000.
And a few days after that, Palmer announced a free gig at a recording studio, open to the first 200 people who responded. At the show, she asked for donations and took in $2,200, she writes, of which she gave $400 to the studio.
Throughout the letter/blog post, Palmer keeps returning to variations on this summing up:
total made on twitter in two hours = $11,000.
total made from my huge-ass ben-folds produced-major-label solo album this year = $0
So what does this have to do with the Future of Journalism?
The big question in both journalism and music these days is how to make it pay. The bottom has fallen out of the advertising market for journalism, out of the disc-selling market for music.
What Palmer's doing represents what could be a big part of the answer for both: Draw a crowd, create a community, and then sell that community the things it wants. At Techdirt, one of the places where they're talking about this, honcho Mike Masnick calls this "CWF + RTB = $$$."
That is, connect with fans and give them a reason to buy. Here's Masnick giving a presentation on how Trent Reznor's use of that formula represents, in Masnick's view, the future of the music industry.
For a musician like Palmer, giving the audience something to buy means access, closeness, personalized encounters, possibly personalized music. And stuff, mementos, merchandise. Some of it -- individually chewed postcards! -- personalized. And a little music too.
Journalists are only starting to realize this, but we've long been in the business of gathering a crowd and selling them things. In the past, journalism has acted as the middleman, the agent for the people -- advertisers -- who are selling things to the crowd. That's not enough to pay the bills anymore, so we have to find other things to sell, just as musicians have had to.
What things? I'm gratified to be able to answer promptly: I don't know. Possibly specialized reporting. Maybe sponsoring events.
In both cases, it's a matter of realizing what you're in the business of selling. Amanda Palmer, it turns out, isn't in the business of selling music so much as she's in the business of selling the experience of being a fan of Amanda Palmer's music. If she's creative enough -- and it looks like she is -- she'll be able to think of as many ways to do that as there are Friday nights.
The going rate for journalism in the age of the Internet -- free -- has made it clear to those of us in the journalism business who didn't already know it that we aren't in the business of selling the news and commentary we produce. So what business are we in?
Let's just say that whoever gets that question right will win a prize.